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Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism.

Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism

Denver Art Museum | Denver, Colorado

October 22, 2017-January 15, 2018

Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism featured works by 37 female artists, from across Europe (including the Nordic countries) and the United States, who were active in Paris in the late-nineteenth century. (1) Paris, however, was simply a starting point, meant to facilitate the reevaluation of the work of these artists, and the exhibition gave equal attention to the artistic avant-garde as well as to those adhering to academicism and naturalism (fig. 1). The opportunity to view works by lesser-known artists was a strength of the exhibit, and for the Denver Art Museum, it signaled a continued commitment to women artists following their 2016 exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism. According to curator Laurence Madeline, the work of the pioneering female artists included in Her Paris continues to be underestimated today by art historians. (2) To address this, the exhibition celebrated their works--but failed to fully explore why they continue to be underestimated.

The works of art were organized thematically, with rooms devoted to women's lives, history painting, young women, children, landscape, the boudoir, and fashion. The first section, "The Art of Painting," focused on restricted educational opportunities--a text panel emphasized the Ecole des Beaux-Arts' policy of excluding women until 1897--and offered a selection of portraits and depictions of women painting, sketching, copying masterpieces, or studying at the independent ateliers that were becoming increasingly popular. The highlight here was Russian-born Marie Bashkirtseff's, In the Studio (1881), a large-scale academic painting of women in a life class at the Academie Julian, to which many women flocked since it afforded an experience akin to the Ecole (fig. 2). Bashkirtseff's work depicts the cornerstone of artistic training, study of the live model, and reflects the increasing (but segregated) access that women had to life classes. However, not mentioned in the museum texts were several relevant facts: that the painting was begun at the suggestion of Rodolphe Julian for Bashkirtseff's 1881 Salon entry, that he gave the exercise to another female student, and that the final painting was intended as a promotional piece for Julian and his academy. (3) A work displayed as a testament to women's dedication to professional training, then, can also be understood as a feat of aggrandizement by a male artist.

Lack of access to the Ecole was a significant barrier for aspiring women artists, yet Her Paris highlighted this reality at the expense of addressing more insidious obstacles. This was illustrated by two works, also included in the first section. Judgement of a Day's Work (1883), by the Danish painters Anna and Michael Ancher, depicts the couple illuminated by a single lamp as they critique an unfinished painting resting on an easel. Painted collaboratively, with Michael completing Anna's portrait, and vice versa, the work speaks to the necessity of support from male artists and teachers, and the impact of domestic relationships on a woman's career. (4) Across the room was a portrait of Berthe Morisot painted around 1865 by her sister Edma Pontillon-Morisot, who quit painting after her marriage at the age of 30, due to her unsupportive husband. (5) The Morisot sisters' talents as art pupils are often noted, which raises the question: What would Edma have created if she had continued to paint after her marriage, and if her work had flourished like her sibling's or Anna Ancher's?

The few "great" women whose works have entered the canon--Rosa Bonheur, Morisot, and Mary Cassatt notably--were represented in the exhibition. But outstanding works by artists not afforded the attention of these canonical artists were also included. Lady Elizabeth Butler's meticulous research into the experiences of common soldiers is evident in her painting, Listed for the Connaught Rangers (1878). The British artist's candid portrayal of a recruiting party walking along a dirt road, attention to the soldiers' dress and gestures, bravado paint handling, and treatment of the sweeping landscape are equally captivating. Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck's The Door (1884) features a brevity in paint application that seems decades ahead of its time. The solemnness of this small, de-populated exterior mirrors the artist's life, as she spent much of her career working in isolation. Finally, Swedish painter Hanna Pauli's portrait of Venny Soldan-Brofeldt (1886-87) captures the artist's Finnish friend and fellow art student at the Academie Colarossi in a candid moment, seated on the floor while sketching, and contrasts with more common depictions of female artists at their easels or in ateliers.

The show's inclusion of artists often omitted from the histories of nineteenth-century art correlates with early efforts by feminist art historians to uncover the work of forgotten female artists. Yet, thirty years ago, in response to these efforts, Griselda Pollock asked, dubiously, "Is adding women to art history the same as producing feminist art history?" (6) In doing so, she also emphasized the need for a disciplinary paradigm shift that does more than simply insert these forgotten women into existing narratives.

Her Paris, though, harked back to early revisionist efforts, and in doing so, emphasized one of the oldest conventions in the discipline of art history--biography. The biographical paradigm shaped this exhibition in numerous ways, from the inclusion of biographies in the catalogue to rooms that explored the lives of women, and through a focus on successful artists (even if they are still marginalized) at the expense of the unsuccessful. On the one hand, this approach was a strength, since scholarship on many of these women is limited, and reproductions of their works can be difficult to obtain, even today. Furthermore, their biographies revealed the impact of personal obstacles, such as family and domestic responsibilities. On the other hand, such information had to be gleaned from a close examination of the catalogue. The exhibition celebrated these pioneering women, but failed to address that they were exceptions: many came from upper-class families and had support that extended beyond financial means. Perhaps an exhibition re-evaluating this era needs to acknowledge the women who did not pursue careers due to various obstacles, and visibly address the mix of personal, social, and institutional factors that impeded women's careers. Her Paris was a missed opportunity to engage with these issues.

Even so, the thematic organization of this exhibition was another strength, as it painted a picture of the issues that preoccupied women artists. It also dispelled the myth that women tended to focus on domestic subject matter. Nonetheless, despite the curator's intention to include works that "transcend both genre and gender," the installation design of several rooms expressly evoked the domestic. (7) The exhibit's "reading room" was meant to evoke a nineteenth-century parlor, and the section "Lives of Women," was decorated with chandeliers, brocade benches, and velvet curtains (figs. 3 and 4). Considering the belief, widespread in the late-nineteenth century, that painting (but not sculpture) was an acceptable amateur past-time for bourgeois women because they could pursue it at home, these domestic touches seem misguided. Indeed, seen in this context, the lack of sculpture (which was not addressed in the exhibition or the catalogue) was a glaring omission. Furthermore, placing these works in the domestic realm suggested that they express an essential femininity--a problematic expectation many in the era imposed upon works by women. (8) In sum, then, Her Paris provided a valuable contribution to the scholarship on nineteenth-century art by women; however, it was limited by its stereotypical emphasis on biography and domesticity and a generally celebratory tone that failed to consider why exhibitions like this are still necessary.

Meghan Bissonnette

Colorado Mesa University


(1.) The exhibition was organized by the American Federation of Arts, and travelled to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky (February 17-May 13, 2018) and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts (June 9-September 3, 2018).

(2.) Laurence Madeline, "Into the Light: Women Artists, 1850-1900," in Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 (New Haven and New York: Yale UP and American Federation of Arts, 2017), 1.

(3.) Christine Haven, "In a Class by Herself: 19th Century Images of the Woman Artist as Student," Woman's Art Journal 2, no. 1 (Spring-Summer, 1981): 38.

(4.) Emily Haight, "Shedding Light: A Curator's Perspective on Anna Ancher," National Museum of Women in the Arts, at shedding-light-a-curators-perspective-on-anna-ancher, accessed May 2, 2018.

(5.) This issue is briefly addressed in the exhibition catalogue in an essay on Marie Bracquemond, whose career also stalled because of an unsupportive husband. See Jane R. Becker, "Marie Bracquemond, Impressionist Innovator," in Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 (New Haven and New York: Yale UP and American Federation of Arts, 2017), 66. According to Becker, Pontillon-Morisot gave up painting out of a sense of duty, while Michelle Facos argues that Edma's husband required her to give up painting after their marriage. Cf. Facos, An Introduction to Nineteenth Century Art (New York: Routledge, 2011), 326.

(6.) Griselda Pollock, "Feminist interventions in the histories of art: an introduction," in Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988), 1.

(7.) Madeline, "Into the Light," 20.

(8.) Tamar Garb, "'L'Art Feminin': The Formation of a Critical Category in Late-Nineteenth Century France," Art History 12, no. 1 (March, 1989): 47.

Caption: Figure 1, left. Installation view of Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism, Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado, October 22, 2017-January 15, 2018, with Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau's La Confidence at left. (Photo: Denver Art Museum)

Caption: Figure 2, above. Installation view of Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism, Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado, October 22, 2017-January 15, 2018, with Marie Bashkirtseff's In the Studio at center and Edma Pontillon's Portrait of Berthe Morisot at right. (Photo: Denver Art Museum)

Caption: Figure 3, far right. Installation view of Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism, Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado, October 22, 2017-January 15, 2018. (Photo: Denver Art Museum)

Caption: Figure 4, right. Installation view of Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism, Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado, October 22, 2017-January 15, 2018. (Photo: Denver Art Museum)
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Author:Bissonnette, Meghan
Publication:Art Inquiries
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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